God and morality: Euthyphro’s dilemma

Tammy asked:

For the philosopher, ‘because God said so’ is an unsatisfactory answer to the question ‘why is act X moral (or immoral)?’ Why?

Answer by Stuart Burns

For two reasons.

One — it ends all discussion, and inquiry. Since God is, by stipulation, beyond human understanding, it is pointless to enquire any further. And since philosophy is a search for underlying reasons, such an answer stops philosophy cold. Not a result that a philosopher will accept lightly.

Two — it remains afflicted by Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In modern language, it would be cited as ‘Does God command that which is Right/Moral/Good/True, or is Right/Moral/Good/True defined by what God commands’. To choose the first horn of the dilemma means accepting that there is a concept of Right (or Moral, or True, etc) that exists independent of God. And in that case, one can inquire as to what that standard is, and how we can learn about it, and so forth. ‘Because God said so’ is not the end of the inquiry. To choose the second horn of the dilemma means that what God commands (or says, or does) is purely arbitrary from the level of our human understanding. Believers in God do not generally warm to the notion that their God acts arbitrarily, and their moral compass swings with (what appears to us to be) the arbitrary whims of God. In either case, ‘because God said so’ does not resolve the issue, because it does not resolve Euthyphro’s Dilemma.

Answer by Graham Hackett

The idea that an act is moral because God says it is, is an aspect of the Divine Command theory of morality. It seems perfectly reasonable to a committed Christian (I will restrict my remarks to the Christian tradition). After all, we hold that God is omnipotent, the final resort of anyone desperately seeking for two things;

* a guide to the correct thing to do

* some idea as to what makes it the correct thing to do.

So if God says ‘thou shalt not steal’, then that is the correct thing to do, and it is correct because God has said it.

We immediately find ourselves immersed in problems with the divine command theory. God does not appear to have covered everything, and there may be long silences between his utterances. We therefore have the question of interpretation as to exactly what the word of God may be, and we cannot demand that He speak to order, so as to clarify every instance where his Word might apply, and how it might apply if there is to be any variation to fit specific circumstances. God does not fill in the blanks. What we need is some general principle rather than a specific commandment. It would be good if we also had some reason for seeing that this command is moral; some way that motivates us to accept it. Can the divine command theory do this?

Then we have the problem as to whether God’s moral judgements apply to Himself. It might seem intuitively obvious that they will do, because he has spoken them and therefore must think them fitting things to do. But wait a moment. If he is bound by his own Word, then he ceases to be omnipotent. He is no longer the final authority on morality; his past corpus of sayings is the final resort. He is no longer omnipotent. What if we say that His Word applies to all other beings, but does not bind Him? We still get trouble, because it seems that the ground beneath the divine command system is not very firm. Can God contradict Himself? What if he does issue contradictory commands. How would he ever be able to resolve this problem?

We can express this dilemma a little more formally by referring to the so-called Euthyphro Dilemma. Euthyphro is a dialogue written by Plato, and the main character in the dialogue asks the following question;

‘Is an action morally good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally good?’

If we say that an action is morally good because God commands it, then we preserve His sovereignty but make him appear arbitrary. If we say that God commands something because it is morally good then we remove the arbitrary element at the expense of saying that there is something else (ethical standards) which he is bound by, which removes His sovereignty and also his free will.

There does not appear to be a principled answer to this question without arbitrarily (like God Himself) making stipulations. We need not go into the enormous body of debate by the Medieval Schoolmen in order to understand the favoured reaction from theologians anxious to preserve the divine sovereignty of God. This reaction is that the nature of God is that he has Goodwill, which means that we can opt for saying that his word is morality, and this morality is grounded in his goodwill, and not therefore arbitrary. This however, just seems like the Divine Sovereignty advocates just saying what they have to say in order to preserve the theory.

I maintain (and this my own view) that there is a principled answer to the Euthyphro dilemma, but it would involve God having to share some of his sovereignty with his subjects. This might be the system proposed by Kant, where he allows humans to have a good will, which is intrinsically good in itself, not just for the good ends it might achieve. And in addition to this, Kant also suggests that humans can internalise and universalise laws and make them generally applicable. We can treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. We can belong to a kingdom of ends, in which we legislate for universal laws, binding ourselves as well as others. There is nothing in Kant which means that we can have no place for God. As Kant himself said,

‘Only two things inspire awe, the starry sky above and the moral law within.’

This seems a defensible piece of theology to me, but of course, I would not wish to seem to be offering God advice.

Answer by Massimo Pigliucci

The best way I can think of to answer that question is to tell you a story. Imagine that it is the year 399 BCE or thereabouts. We are in Athens, walking beside one of the greatest figures of Western civilization, the philosopher Socrates. As it happens, Socrates is on his way to the Agora, the main gathering place for citizens in ancient Athens. He is not going there for commerce, nor to engage in a discussion with one of his pupils. Rather, Socrates has been summoned on urgent business at the Royal Stoa, the office of King Archon. The reason for the summons is that a young Athenian named Meletus, whom Socrates hardly knows, has charged the philosopher with impiety (disrespect for the gods and general immorality) and of corrupting the Athenian youth. As we learn from one of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedo, Socrates’s defense (described in detail in another Platonic writing, the Apology) will fail, and he will be put to death by the Athenian democracy.

But that nefarious day in the history of philosophy is still ahead of us; at the moment, Socrates has encountered an acquaintance, also on his way to the magistrate’s office. The character in question is Euthyphro, which is also the name of a dialogue in which Plato (who was Socrates’s student and Aristotle’s teacher) describes one of the most powerful arguments ever deployed to show that even if gods existed, and contrary to popular perception, they would have no role in how we decide what is moral and what is not. This is a crucial issue, because for most people a main reason for believing in God (or gods) is their feeling that only the supernatural could possibly guarantee the existence of a universal morality, and by implication that only the existence of that sort of moral code provides ultimate meaning to our existence. But if Socrates is right, then the question of the existence of gods is irrelevant to both morality and the quest for meaning in life- which implies that no shortcut based on sacred books will do and we need to do some sort philosophical work to figure things out.

So let’s follow Socrates for a bit longer and see what happens when he encounters Euthyphro. After exchanging greetings as customary, they inquire into each other’s business at the King’s Court. Euthyphro is aghast that someone would file suit against Socrates, but it is Socrates who is more surprised when he finds out Euthyphro’s business: the guy is going to denounce his own father, who accidentally caused the death of a household employee, who had in turn been guilty of murder. Socrates wants to know how Euthyphro can be so certain, judging from his boundless self-confidence, that this is the right course of action for him to take. Euthyphro’s response is that he knows what he is about to do is right because that’s what the gods want. But how, replies Socrates, do you know what the gods want? Completely unperturbed by the obvious irony in Socrates’s question, his interlocutor candidly responds: ‘The best of Euthyphro, and that which distinguishes him, Socrates, from other men, is his exact knowledge of all such matters. What should I be good for without it?’

Socrates feigns then much reverence for Euthyphro and declares himself to be the latter’s disciple, so that he too can learn about such important matters. This setup immediately leads the philosopher to ask the obvious question: ‘And what is piety, and what is impiety?’ In modern parlance, this question is about the same as asking what is moral and what is immoral. Euthyphro’s first answer is one that most people would give: ‘Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.’ In other words, gods define what is moral or immoral. This same sort of answer is why so many people are absolutely convinced that morality cannot possibly exist without gods , and that therefore denying the supernatural is equivalent to embracing moral relativism, and from there the distance is short to the conclusion that life is meaningless. But not so fast, says Socrates. He points out to his companion that, according to the stories we hear, the gods often disagree vehemently on what is right or wrong in any particular instance. This, of course, is a problem not just for polytheistic religions but also for monotheistic ones once we realize that the intelligent person ought to ask herself why she should embrace the moral dictates of one particular god rather than those espoused by another god of a competing religion. But Socrates this day is in a good mood, so he lets Euthyphro off that particular hook by postulating that there probably are at least some moral dictates on which all gods would agree (for example, that killing without reason is not permissible). Still, Socrates presses the point by rephrasing the question: ‘The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.’ Let us examine these two alternatives — the horns of what is now known as ‘Euthyphro’s dilemma’ — very carefully. If you understand why the dilemma is so powerful, you will have liberated yourself from the misguided notion so common among humanity that morality and divinity are inextricably entwined.

Consider first the second horn, that something is moral because it is approved by the gods. Rather counterintuitively, this essentially means that morality is arbitrary! If God decides that, say, murder, rape, or genocide are okay, then we would have to assent, regardless of how repugnant such a thought might be or how much our own sense of right and wrong would be offended or crushed by it. Indeed, it is not at all difficult to find perfectly good examples of God’s commandments in various sacred scriptures that no person in his right (moral) mind today would follow, regardless of their alleged divine origin. I’ll leave the reader to do some googling around in order to verify my statement, it isn’t difficult.

Perhaps, then, we should embrace the other horn of Euthyphro’s dilemma and agree that a given action is approved by the gods because it is moral, not the other way around. Except that such an agreement provides only temporary relief. Think of it this way: if God approves of a given action because that action is moral, this means that there is a God-independent standard for morality by which God himself abides. But if that is the case, two astounding conclusions follow: first, we do not need gods to be moral; and second, we now need to figure out how to be moral (which just happens to be the goal of ethics). The surprising outcome of Euthyphro’s dilemma, then, is that the religious believer has to agree that either morality is arbitrary or the divine, even if it exists, has nothing to do with it at all.

Of course, few people like this conclusion the first time they hear it, least of all our good old friend Euthyphro, who tries desperately to escape the horns of the dilemma on which Socrates has managed to impale him. He does not succeed, and his attempts reveal such a poor logic that Socrates pokes a bit of fun at him. Then, as the infinitely patient teacher that he is (or, depending on how you interpret his character, the always sarcastic commentator on society), Socrates tells Euthyphro that they now have to begin the discussion from scratch. But Euthyphro cannot take it anymore, and in one of the most unceremonious hasty retreats ever to appear in Western literature he takes leave of the philosopher by saying, ‘Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.’

The Euthyphro dialogue was written twenty-four centuries ago, and its conclusion is devastating for the whole idea that divinity and morality are intimately linked.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Just as a footnote, the British philosopher Peter Geach has another take on this. See my 2009 answer, God, ethics and Euthyphro’s dilemma included in my book Philosophy Q and A.


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